The Pathology Of Density

Richard Carson explores what it is about human nature that makes us loathe density.

The word "density" has become the rallying cry of the no growth xenophobes in our nation's cities and neighborhoods. It is an all-purpose scare tactic used to stop land use and transportation projects. But why do people react so negatively to the word? What is the pathology of density?

The Genetic Code: One answer is that our reaction to human density has more to do with our evolutionary genetic programming than with our conscious analytical thought. Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, in their book Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, make a compelling argument that human behavior is the result of 500 million years of DNA programming and the process of natural selection. They say that for some primates, "If population density becomes too high, then mechanisms are set into motion to reduce it." These forces may include, "...fighting and domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, soaring infant and maternal mortality; psychosis... gay bashing; alienation, social disorientation and rootlessness..." Two Theories of Density: Jane Jacobs, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, says that using persons-per-acre is a "statistical monstrosity" because it masks the real problem of overcrowding. She argues that higher density may or may not result in overcrowding -- or too many people per room -- which is the real culprit destroying urban livability. Jacobs argues for increased density linked to increased livability. The theory being that if you give people the idyllic new urbanist neighborhood, with espresso bars and boutiques, then they won't care how dense their neighborhood is. Ian McHarg, the guru of ecological planning, in his book Design With Nature talks about a "pathological togetherness" where as "density increases, so do social pressures, which manifest themselves in stress disease..." He basically agrees with Sagan and Druyan, and cites the same studies. He says the evolutionary reason for this pathological behavior is that "stress inhibits population growth." It is nature's way of fighting increased density. McHarg appears to disagree with Jacobs and concludes that of all the urban stress factors "the single obvious one is not poverty, but density..."

Cultural Norms: One of the most dense human populations on earth exists in Hong Kong. Everyone lives in concrete towers and the average density is 280,350 people per square mile. If high density carries with it such a negative pathology; then we must ask ourselves why crime is so low there. Part of the answer is cultural. Hong Kong has a unique British-Chinese tradition that produces a high standard of living, an unusual civility and a respect for authority. So the pathology of density may have a threshold governed by more than genetic programming and spatial density. It may also be governed by regionalized cultural norms that are important to understand. For example, if there is any human population totally ill suited to higher densities, it is people living in the American West. Their ancestors originally came West to be free of the overcrowding in the Eastern cities and in some cases to be free from authority and society. These independent characteristics (and characters) are an inherent part of their cultural fabric and their value system. Political motives. Environmental activists -- who are often allies with the no growth advocates and see development as the common enemy -- have completely different motives regarding density. Some environmentalists would like to take a perfectly good idea like "smart growth" to a political, social and economic extreme. Their strategy is greatly increase urban density in order to save the natural environment. This would be achieved by packing people into dense human reservations and limiting their mobility by convincing them that they don't need automobiles.

Towards a Better Model: It is time that we planners reconsider dictating unrealistic and artificially high density targets. A more rational approach is to let cities design and build neighborhoods at densities that the residents actually want to live in. We can still create a compact urban growth form that optimize both the land use settlement pattern and our infrastructure delivery costs. We also need to realize that market demand changes over time with population demographic, so we should adjust the density mix. This approach will go a long way in reestablishing the local voter's faith in our planning efforts.

Richard H. Carson is a writer and planning director who lives in the Pacific Northwest, and former elected official of the American Planning Association (APA). He currently maintains APA's "Internet Planning Media" and the independent "About Planning" websites.




I have no problems with this arcticle--until the last paragraph (i.e., the recommendation). Regulating density is perhaps one of the MANY things that planners should abandon altogher, thereby allowing any possible density (however high!). Why? Well, traffic is the greatest cause of social dis-ease--not density. And so it is of no suprise that the only places where traffic is an issue are in those places where density is not sufficiently high enough to support pedestrian lifestyles (i.e., no need to get in the car for anything). Therefore, too many cars on the road is our problem in America and not our so called genetic, Western disposition to live in the sticks. Were this really the case, places like NY, San Fran, and Chicago would be the worst places in the Americas to live and not our great centers of learning, culture and wealth. No one can argue against this.

Raushan Johnson

student in GaTech MCP program (yeah, I hate Atlanta if you are wondering!)

Density and the Public Process

Sheryl Stolzenberg wrote:

"Planning in the US, unlike that in the former USSR, does not rest its decision making authority in the hands of non-elected technical folks. It is, ultimately, in the hands of elected officials."

Why do I have the feeling that the U.S. planning profession during the last 60 years has become little more than a bureaucratic rubber stamp? Just take a look at the Eisenhower era zoning laws that are on the books in most municipalities and you'll see how little creativity is involved in planning modern communities. Yes, you're right though. Planning is ultimately in the hands of elected officials, lawyers and businessman mostly, and that's a big part of the problem. No longer do we have academically well rounded statesmen like Thomas Jefferson who had a genuine appreciation for architecture and planning. Unfortunately, however well meaning they might be, politicians and the public at large are easily manipulated by the undemocratic efforts of lobbyists from various development, and financial industries whose interests lie in perpetuating the suburban growth machine. As an example, last year in Atlanta the Georgia Highway Contractors Association attempted to influence public opinion by running an awful ad labeling smart growth as some commie/enviromentalist plot to force people to live downtown.

You can read it here

What's so amusing about the ad is that Therol Brown, the executive director of the GHCA, defends it by saying "We just want to try to wake up the citizens of Georgia to let them know certain groups are influencing public policy that affects their lives". Yeah, but he seems to be ignorant of the fact that there just might be a conflict of interest, since its obvious that the GHCA benefits economically from pro-sprawl land development policies. To pretend that "certain groups are influencing policy" and that his isn't, is a blatant lie to say the least.

To make things worse, Mr. Brown then says "If people don't want to drive automobiles, fine - but that's a people choice. Don't let it be forced on people by public policy.". This is ludicrous, as we all know too well that the very problem is the public policy of the last 50 years that practically makes automobile ownership in most parts of the country a mandatory condition of citizenship. Yeah let's pretend for a moment that driving an automobile is really a "choice". It's about as much of a choice as Henry Ford saying to buyers of the Model T: "Any color you want, as long as it's black" or basically "You can have any form of transportation you want as long as its an automobile".

The problem with this type of rhetoric is that it does nothing to enrichen public discourse. Indeed, I would argue that such arguments with their emotional appeals to "patriotism" and "individual freedom" weaken democracy by distorting the facts and distracting the public from the real issues. Unfortunately, such industry backed groups have deep pockets and can easily afford to fill the airwaves with their propaganda decrying Smart Growth with its increased density as some United Nations plot to force us all to live in communist era high rise apartment buildings.

Furthermore I disagree with George McGregor's claim that the "paternalistic and dictatorial new urbanist would require everyone to live how and where they want". New Urbanism, at its core, is a free market solution to provide a viable alternative to suburban sprawl. Its success or failure ultimately will be judged by the market, and how successful such developments are at selling such intangible concepts as "Quality of life","Community", and "Sense of Place". All New Urbanists are asking for is a level field to play on, that is the opportunity to design and develop traditional neighborhoods without getting stuck in a web of Eisenhower era zoning laws.

-Matt Lyons

Thus speaks T-rex (NOT the antique rock band)

Planning in the US, unlike that in the former USSR, does not rest its decision making authority in the hands of non-elected technical folks. It is, ultimately, in the hands of elected officials. And yes, they may respond to public outcries and opt for low density, but the public learns quickly what the impacts of large scale low density means and begins to demand greater variety in order to save environmental amenities, reduce air pollution, etc. As a result, government is often in a reactive, rather than pro-active, position. That doesn't mean we should through out the baby (public participation processes) with the bathwater of sprawl. This is an evolutionary process, and requires greater emphasis on public info than has been the case heretofor.

y the way, the plans I've worked on include those for Blair County in Pennsylvania (which included agricultural preservation way back then); Deerfield Beach, Delray Beach and Fort Lauderdale in Florida (all mostly so-called built out cities entering their redevelopment phases and emphasizing mixed use and infill redevelopment), and Palm Beach County, Florida -- which, while it does contain sites of sprawl, also has a major linked open space system (I started it) and major areas of active preserved agriculture and conservation. I am proud of the plans of the communities I've served because they are trying to use all the tools available to them to solve problems. Wouldn't it be lovely if pontificators could do the same, instead of leaping to wrong conclusions all the time. Back to my cave again -- stalagtites are better company than lots of planner-dictators.


The "planners know better" notion espoused by some in this forum frightens me. Sheryl's comments boast of being proud of the process, and I'm sorry to offend many here, but that is what planning is all about.

The paternalistic and dictatorial new urbanists would Require everyone to live how and where they want.

The public process be damned!

A planners job is to give decision makers and the public at large information with which they can make informed decisions. Yes, it the is planners jop to explain, "if you develop at lower single use densities...X will happer; if you develop at higher mixed use densities, Y will happen.

But if you have a plannig process and the community comes out en masse and says we want our single family 10,000 s.f lots and we do not want X, thats the way it is. The integrity of the planning process is paramount.

It is not the job of a planner to limit choice. And at this point, that is the charge of the new urbanist.

Response to Sheryl


You describe with pride how much "significant public input" there was in all the comprehensive plans you helped develop over the last quater century. Yet, you seem oblibious to the fact that all those comp plans you helped develop from PA to FL simply facilitated the worst kind of sprawl development. The public participation process that goes into comp plans amount to little more than NIMBY damage control. You imply in your comments that citizens argue for lower density. Well, who can blame them? Within the current paradigm of single use, auto-oriented zoning "pods", the higher the density, the worse traffic congestion will become. Facing this certainty, citizens invariably fight for the lowest density single-use pods possible!..and of course, citizens that tend to participate are single family homeowners who want to protect their property values by putting the obligatory higher density pods as far from their developments as possible. Now there's a system of citizen participation we can all be proud of!

Look, the paradigm of Euclidean planning and zoning in our country has been one huge debacle and unfortunately, planners like Rich Carson and yourself that have been steeped in it their entire careers will probably never "get it". Thankfully, a new generation of planners (and even some of the seasoned ones) are beginning to see the light and will eventually be the ones in charge. Their challenge will largely be to undo the enormous damage done by those comp plans you seem so proud of.

urban density

1. Land is a limited resource

2. There is a limit to alocate resorces for maintenance of urban infra - structure

3. we must use land much more effient for long term and short terms reasons.

4. the problem is of course the "number" (the density ) we are ready to accept.

Thanks for starting a great discussion, Rich.

If there is a benefit to the posting of weak op-eds like this, it is the great discussion that it generates. Fortunately, Planetizen's readers are a pretty bright group of people, and when bunk is presented to them they don't let it stand uncontested.

Rich, just leave the Portland area. You would be so much happier somewhere else. Just about everywhere else in the country is a low density mess. Move to my town, Fresno, California. You will love it. It is a 130 year old city with nearly half a million people and yet we have not a single rowhouse. Urban apartment blocks are non-existent. All we have are single-family homes and some auto-centric post-war apartment complexes. And don't worry about the puny density of 15 units per acre in the apartment complexes creating “pathologies.” There is plenty of asphalt "open space" in them to mitigate against that.

There are no “dictator planners” here. Wierdo planners like myself, who actually like cities and city densities, are powerless to bring new or old urbanism to this region. Density here, as in most other places outside of Oregon, is illegal! You’d love it! Our zoning won’t let you get above 3 units per acre most of the time. New Urbanism is illegal here, it’s great! I have literally seen people protest 3.5 units per acres as too dense. I swear. Of course, our air is a toxic stew, we’re paving over the most productive farmland in the nation in the nation at an alarming rate, and our downtown looks like Berlin in 1945. But at least we don’t have any of those pathological high density neighborhoods that people supposedly hate so much, like Georgetown, North Beach, and Greenwich Village. Our low density haven resembles none of the dense nightmare cities of Paris, Rome, and Barcelona. A Carsonian paradise!

And your characterization of Jane Jacobs is just plain offensive. Her writing is much more complex and thorough than you characterized it to be. Unlike some people, she actually had the courage to study cities, and see why some worked and some didn't, why some parks were dangerous and others weren't, and why some supposed "quiet residential areas" were more dangerous than the dense bustling streets of the old city. She didn’t give up on the idea of the city and city densities as a good way to live, unlike some people. Fortunately, Planetizen's readers are familiar with her fabulous and important work, because they rated "Death and Life" the #1 planning book around. I can’t remember where I heard it, but someone once told me “it’s not how dense you make it, but how you make it dense.” Exactly. Cabrini-Green and Boston’s North End are not the same. And not all density creates “pathologies.” Mrs. Jacobs discovered this, because she cared to look.

Mr. Heath, read "Death and Life." I promise you that you will like it. She doesn't mention espresso bars once.


As a planner in Ada County ID we encounter opposition to higher densities. People should have a say in what type of living conditions are developed. I consider educating the public on land use and higher densities important. As population grows older there should be more use of the higher densities as in townhouses and condos. Who needs a lawn to take care of with aging populations and increasing health problems. There is a future for higher densities even in areas where land is cheap and plentiful.

Regarding Richard Carson's Pathology of Density

The fact to discuss density as an unqualified mathematical relationship or as a matter of psychological apprehension is a misleading topic, and infact an useless discussion!

It would be more appropriate to stress that it is not density per se, but density clearly articulated in an urban variety of time-tested patterns and morphologies which has a relevance both in our experience of urban life and our psychological well-being or pathologies!

Density is not an abstractable principle, but though a measurable quality it cannot be separated from a morphological and typological system (like accurately specified by NU strategies)!

I agree that density in whatever kind of form, is not a sufficient guarantee of urbanity and that overdensification is directly proportional to its contrary, namely suburban dissolution. There can be completely dissolute and diluted horizontal sprawl as well as highly concentrated and over-densified vertical suburban sprawl.

What makes the suburb is the disruption of functional andn social complexity and the compulsive consumption of space and time within a territorial frame organized through forced mobility and fragmentation. Low density sprawl areas and highly concentrated business districts, residential skyscraper zones etc. are equally parts of the suburban scenario and

eventually the two sides of a modernist desurbanization process!!

If density scares it is because it is associated to the worst and most anti-urban examples of territorial occupancy!

Nobody is scared nor of Rome, nor of Paris, nor of Amsterdam where the density ratios are high, but wonderfully contained in excellently articulated system of blocks, streets, piazzas, refined apartement building typologies and of course imbedded in the most stimulating framework of mixed urban functions and public buildings!!

What is essential is a critical density to generate proximity and facilitate vicinity in the most convivial way, inducing opportunities of exchange and interaction of citizen as an urban community...There are inumerable patterns of varying density coefficients to achieve this goal within the respect of the citizens' aspirations of private comfort and their needs for public life!

Critical Density or Critical Thinking?

The op-ed piece on the pathology of density echoes the concept of critical density that was postulated in urban geography back in the 1960s. The basis for the argument was a handful of studies showing various pathologies when rats were packed into cages at unbelievable densities. The other line of support was the declining densities observed in US cities. The problem with this line of thinking is that it is deterministic, it ignores cultural adaptation, and it ignores contrary evidence. It assumes that we are programmed by our genes rather than being active agents with some measure of freedom and dignity. It ignores the fact that good design can produce high densities that are aesthetically pleasing and offer plenty of open space and natural areas--visit the South False Creek neighbourhood in Vancouver and then look up the density values in the Stats Canada report--you'll be amazed. When we talk about density, we need to distinguish between density of cars and density of people--when we build at high densities and use cars with the same frequency as in low density neighbourhoods--then we get into trouble. The final problem with this line of thinking is that density happens naturally because people want to be in cities, they want to live around other people, and that is why density values are going up in many inner-city areas in Canada and the US--not because some central planner is "packing people" into little boxes. That density produces some centrifugal forces-congestion, for example, and the result is a continual back and forth between centripetal and centrifugal forces.

Density and Livability

I tend to agree with Mr. Carson that density should not be a projection or a goal. I don't necessarily agree with the critique re Jane Jacobs (espresso bars, etc.), but in concept I think planners should be concerned with the efficient delivery of services as well as livability. As for espresso bars, I could care less. For me, as a planner, livability is improving the basic conditions for existence. Removing the slums, adding or improving basic types of services, etc. are my ideas of livability.

Dictating density?

I've been working as a practicing planner since 1974 -- before the Common Era of personal computers, e-mail, etc. (You know, back when Tyrannosaurus Rex roamed the land.) I spent years in northcentral and central Pennsylvania working for local governments, did time in Harrisburg with the then PA Dept. of Environmental Resources, and have served a variety of local governments in South Florida since 1981. Not one of the plans or land development regulations I helped to develop was adopted without significant public input before receiving its final blessing by elected officials. Can either Richard Carson or Stuart Sirota let us know where the planners are "dictating" density? It's hard for me to believe that Pennsylvania and South Florida are the only parts of the US that have not succumbed to the harsh hand of the Dictator-Planner. I always understood my job to be one of providing info and guidance (and sometimes begging and pleading.) Well, ok now, I'll go on back into my cave...

Pathology of Density

The last paragraph of the Carson article:

"Towards a Better Model: It is time that we planners reconsider dictating
unrealistic and artificially high density targets. A more rational approach
is to let cities design and build neighborhoods at densities that the
residents actually want to live in. We can still create a compact urban
growth form that optimize both the land use settlement pattern and our
infrastructure delivery costs. We also need to realize that market demand
changes over time with population demographic, so we should adjust the
density mix. This approach will go a long way in reestablishing the local
voter's faith in our planning efforts."

Where are planners "dictating unrealistic and artificially high density targets"? The status quo for decades has been for planners to dictate
unrealistic and artificially LOW density targets. That's what sprawl IS and has been the norm virtually everywhere. I think Carson is in some kind of post-traumatic fantasy world.

He offers this super-generalized "model" which offers nothing of substance.
By contrast, New Urbanism offers a specific model called the Transect that
provides a full range of densities. Everything he calls for in his
unsubstantive "model" - compact urban growth form, optimized land use and
infrastructure delivery, AND density mix - are all specifically acommodated
in the Transect.

So, come 'on Rich, why not finally get on board? Oh, I forgot, that would mean you wouldn't be a "heretic" anymore and have anything controversial to write about in Planetizen.

Density and Livability

The editorial on density makes some interesting points, but then just jumps to a vague conclusion about market driven planning - at least I think that's what he meant.

I believe a better conclusion might be reached by looking not at dense cities vs. wide open spaces - but at the real "ideal" of many Americans of the "small town" type community, being imperfectly recreated in some of the new urbanist communities.

I believe that our real problem lies in the "bloating" of the American suburb in the past 40 years. Much as many Americans have become "bloated" due to "supersize" food and packaging - so have our suburban lots, homes, cars,and roads. And all this bloating is leading us to a bad place. We can have lots of very nice suburbs on 1/8 to 1/4 acre lots (more lawn than most know what to do with anyway), that can support "neighborhood" shopping. But the almost exponential growth in "supersize" lots and houses, has meant that to meet the necessary economics of scale, shopping centers and schools have to become huge and regional - rather than moderately sized and local. Few are really happy with this - especially with the excessive traffic problems it creates. Yet the fear of living in close proximity to those of lower income groups does approach pathological levels in many urban areas.

Solutions? Require mixed use, mixed type, multi-fuctional zoning and community building. Put heavy penalties on septic tank suburbs. Kill single use zoning. It is one of the most destructive concepts ever invented.

don't tell the Italians

Having just been in Italy, I was grateful to have returned to the refuge on my 6000 square foot lot in the burbs. Fortunately I live in a low density place where heart disease is amomg the highest in the USA, where we spend 7.5 days a year driving to work, where our "small town" now issues air quality alerts, where two-thirds of our streams are unfit for swimming or fishing, where our children spend an hour a day on school buses, where racial and economic segregation increase daily, where our murder rate is equal to a town twice our size.... I could go on, but I am so relaxed and comfortable, that I should turn on the TV.

Please don't tell the Italians about our quality of life. They may want to move here - and as you know, density is bad.

Density Unnatural?

The idea concerning a biological predisposition to avoiding population densities is to an extent, a good point. However, we need to take into consideration the following:

It is JUST as unnatural to spread out to an inconvenient and unnecessary extent while degrading the environment, the existence of which is necessary for our own natural resources and, indeed, RETREAT from density. We have density as a means to preserve areas AROUND us to retreat to when density wears on us. Otherwise, if we go low-density, we are only escaping other people to retreat to.....developed landscape....which is overwhelmingly privately-owned.

The example using primates and dysfunctional behaviour as symbolic of a 500 million year evolutionary "genetic code" is only partly applicable. In such circumstances, primates do not make a means of INCREASING living standards to respond to density, other than....killing each other off. However, human beings in an urban agglomeration have the capacity to respond in a natural way to a natural improving services and thus living standards.

In the evolutionary scheme of things, it is genetically natural to experience stress in response to density, when the density is not amended through life-enhancing conveniences. It is just as "genetically" unfit and unnatural to threaten our livelihood by going low-density, inducing artificial desecration of the natural resources we otherwise need for such livelihood - another great intent of evolution.

Adding to mike's comments

Mike Lewyn pointed out that all but three American cities with average densities of more than 10,000 people per square mile gained population over the past ten years. It also serves to remember that almost every community district in New York gained population (and, of course, density) between 1990 and 2000. Many of New York's neighbourhoods and community districts have densities that exceed 50,000 people per square mile -- indeed, according to the 2000 Census, the affluent, family-filled neighbourhood of Brooklyn Heights has densities ranging from 87,667 to 102,776 people per square mile.

Of course, New York could simply be a fluke. But that doesn't change the fact that people are flocking to dense old neighbourhoods and dense new neighbourhoods from Montreal to Boston to Vancouver. New condominiums are densifying the already-dense cores of Toronto and Vancouver, and the Plateau neighbourhood in Montreal (which is by no means as dense as Hong Kong, but at between 40,000 and 50,000 ppsm, doesn't fare too badly) is extremely desirable and home to people from a multitude of backgrounds, including many families.

Point is, density makes for good neighbourhoods. And while many would prefer a little slice of the countryside to a teeming urban community, we shouldn't forget the benefits and desirability of density when building cities. Mr. Carson makes a good point when he states, "A more rational approach is to let cities design and build neighborhoods at densities that the residents actually want to live in." But it is very misleading to suggest that people don't want dense neighbourhoods ("It is nature's way of fighting increased density."). Dense neighbourhoods can exist without crime and overbearing stress. Different people want different neighbourhoods and cities should be built accordingly, but one musn't assume that low density is the norm.

generalization piled upon generalization

Carson asserts that there is some sort of "pathology of density" -- based on nothing at all. His only support for his claim is that Ian McHarg says so. If Ian McHarg wrote that the Holocaust was caused by Martians, or that blue whales eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, would Carson blindly take this bozo's words at face value?

In fact, the only actual fact Carson cites, Hong Kong's low crime rate, establishes that density doesn't impair civility. But Carson brushes the matter off by saying (essentially) that Asians are so superior to us Western morons that they can live peacefully in any environment.

But in fact, even within American metro areas poverty rather than density dictates crime rates. For example, Lakewood, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb has about 10,000 people per square mile -- more than the central city of Cleveland, more than other suburbs of Cleveland. Yet Lakewood not only has lower crime rates than the city of Cleveland, it also has lower crime rates than demographically comparable suburbs. In 2000, Lakewood had about 130 robberies per 100,000 people (70 muggings, 54,000 residents) -- no different from Euclid (49,000 people, 68 robberies), Brooklyn (11,000 people, 19 robberies), or Shaker Heights (43 robberies, 28,000 people). The suburbs with significantly lower crime than Lakewood are distinguished just by density (they are less dense than Lakewood, but so are Shaker Heights etc.) but by distance from the central city and its poverty.

The assumption that there are densities people "naturally want to live in" overlooks the fact that state action (highways, zoning etc.) shapes the urban environment, that it is not a result of the unfettered free market.

Moreover, the highest density cities aren't always the ones that people don't want to live in. 16 cities with over 100,000 people have over 10,000 people per square mile -- densities that Carson would probably condemn. During the 1990s, ALL BUT THREE of them gained population. The population losing cities weren't high density cities but mid density cities like St. Louis (5623 people per square mile, lost over 10% of its 1990 population and over 60% of its 1950 population) and Baltimore (just over 8000 per square mile, and again 11% loss in 1990s).

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